Monday, April 13, 2009

'No Irish Need Apply.' The Clash of Cultures Along the Old Croton Aqueduct


Long before the first shovelful of dirt was turned, it was obvious that the Croton Aqueduct faced massive problems. The land along the Croton and Hudson Rivers through which it would pass was already well settled. With the breakup of the manors of Cortlandt, Philipsburgh and Fordham after the Revolution, many tenant families purchased the properties they farmed. After the War of 1812, wealthy merchants and speculators from New York City bought up much of the remaining desirable land along the Hudson and built large mansions.

By the mid-1830's, some 200 landowners along the route of the 41-mile-long aqueduct and on the site of the future Croton Reservoir would have to be compensated and, in some cases, moved. One impediment to the start of construction was the requirement to ascertain the names of all persons holding title to land along its right of way and for one of the aqueduct engineers to visit each person.

"Some of them are not at home when called on; others are a mile or two away from their residences; and many who are seen want time to make up their minds as to the amount of compensation they are to receive." So wrote Maj. David B. Douglass, chief engineer of the Croton Aqueduct, a hero of the War of 1812, and former professor of engineering at West Point. Legally, work could not begin on any land that had not been appraised or purchased. Slow moving and cautious, Douglass--on the job for little more than a year--was replaced in 1836 by self-taught engineer John B. Jervis, who would see the project through to completion.

Hostility Widespread
Westchester residents fought the aqueduct at every turn. When the state legislature met for its 1836 session, it was besieged with demands that the powers of the water commissioners granted in 1834 be reduced. An act was passed directing that land taken for the aqueduct and not used for that purpose be returned to its original owners. It also stipulated that necessary fences, culverts and overpasses would be built.

In 1837, spurred by Theodorus C. Van Wyck--the same unrelenting foe of the Croton project who had distributed handbills during the 1835 vote--angry Westchester citizens again petitioned the legislature. They attacked the Croton Aqueduct for unconstitutionally extending the boundaries of New York City and "invading the historic manor of Cortlandt and County of Westchester." Landowners demanded that the 1835 act be repealed because it deprived them of their property without their consent and against their will. Unfortunately for them, the state had the legal right to claim private lands for public works.

Compounding the delay, as the first construction contracts were about to be signed, the financial panic of 1837 erupted. Although required by law to make payments in specie (hard coinage), New York banks decided to resort to using paper money. This completely demoralized money markets. In that year alone 618 banks failed, and the ensuing depression lasted about seven years. Although bids had been received on 23 sections of the aqueduct, bids on ten sections were deemed to be too high. The city's tightened purse strings allowed contracts to be let only on 13, totaling $921,698. With 86 sections yet to be bid on, it was obvious that the total cost of the Croton Aqueduct would exceed the $5 million estimate.

Hostility toward the aqueduct took many forms. Surveying parties were denied access to some properties under threat of suits for trespass. Surveyors were subjected to abusive language or even assaulted. Stakes hammered into the ground to mark site boundaries mysteriously disappeared. Landowners attempted to extract every bit of compensation they could by any means. Opportunistic speculators bought up farmland along the route of the aqueduct, divided it into village lots, and tried to convince aqueduct appraisers of their inflated values.

Landowners vs. Laborers
Once construction began, many claimed they had suffered grievous injury because of theft by construction workers of fruits, vegetables, timber and tools. Affidavits were presented alleging extensive damages. One stated, "A residence near this aqueduct is extremely unpleasant, by reason of the noises, riots, and drunken revels of the said laborers." Moreover, it was "unsafe and imprudent for a respectable female to walk on, or near, or along where said aqueduct is constructing." To counter these, other affidavits were offered from farmers who indicated they had never lost any property or heard of women being insulted, claiming, "so far as their observation extends, the laborers are a civil people."

The "laborers" in question were workers, mostly recent immigrants from Ireland who had been engaged to build the aqueduct. Unlike new arrivals from Germany and Scandinavia who sought farmland, the Irish--although chiefly from rural areas--tended to cluster in Eastern seaboard cities where they sought work as laborers or servants. Usually penniless on arrival and not easily assimilated into a Protestant, industrialized, urban culture, the Irish found housing only in the worst slums. The stereotype of the hard-drinking, brawling Irish Paddy took hold early. In Eastern cities, it was not unusual for advertisements in newspapers to state bluntly, "No Irish need apply."

During the 1830's, the Irish comprised 44 percent of all immigrants. “From Ireland there comes yearly a great rabble, who because of their tendency to drunkenness, their fighting and their knavery, make themselves commonly hated," one observer wrote. “A respectable Irishman hardly dares acknowledge his nationality.” Yet they were ambitious, hardworking, energetic--and aggressively patriotic, as the large numbers who later served in Irish regiments during the Civil War attested. Thirty-eight Union regiments had the word "Irish" in their names. .

A people accustomed to dealing with rent collectors and oppressive landlords, they knew the advantages of organization and took to city politics with skill and enthusiasm. No immigrant group made its influence felt in political life quicker or more effectively than the Irish.

Prejudice Rears Its Ugly Head
"It is a fact," declared Samuel F.B. Morse, professor of painting and sculpture at N.Y.U. and inventor of the telegraph, "that an unaccountable disposition to riotous conduct has manifested itself within a few years when exciting topics are publicly discussed, wholly at variance with the former peaceful, deliberative character of our people." Morse, the author of two books that fanned the fires of nativism, was deeply suspicious of Catholic motives in the United States, saw Catholic enterprise as propaganda for a return to monarchy.

In his Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States, first published in 1835, Morse wrote: “Surely American Protestants, freemen, have discernment enough to discover beneath them the cloven foot of this subtle foreign heresy. They will see that Popery is now, what it has ever been, a system of the darkest political intrigue and despotism, cloaking itself to avoid attack under the sacred name of religion. They will be deeply impressed with the truth, that Popery is a political as well as a religious system; that in this respect it differs totally from all other sects, from all other forms of religion in the country.”

Washington Irving also echoed the xenophobia. In an 1840 letter to the editor of Knickerbocker Magazine in New York City, he described how a camp of Irish laborers near Sleepy Hollow had been beset by the headless apparitions associated with the place and aroused by “strangers of an unknown tongue.” These ghostly specters intimidated the workers, and kept them from walking past the haunted Dutch church to nearby whiskey mills, so that “the paddys will not any longer venture out of their shantys at night.” Irving warned that if the harrying continued, the aqueduct workers, tired of being cut off from their whisky, might “entirely abandon the goblin regions of Sleepy Hollow, and the completion of the Croton Waterworks be seriously retarded."

As part of their contract with the city, aqueduct contractors had agreed not to "give or sell any ardent spirits to their workmen," or to permit any such spirits to be given or sold, or even brought upon the line. Despite all efforts to keep liquor away from aqueduct laborers, the water commissioners noted that "the love of lucre has induced certain individuals, regardless of the injury inflicted on others, to open places of resort for the laborers, where this enemy of man may be obtained, in any quantity, for money." A few unscrupulous Westchester farmers even turned their homes into taverns where aqueduct workers could imbibe "a drop of the creature." Conniving local magistrates collaborated in this practice by granting licenses.

The Irish also brought with them their sectarian secret organizations. Among these were the pro-Catholic ribbon societies, so-called because members wore a green ribbon. Traditional Irish factionalism erupted on the aqueduct in April of 1838, with a battle between men from County Cork in southwest Ireland, and those from Fermanagh in northern Ireland. Many were injured, and one man was killed. A resident engineer's report casually dismissed the incident: "The affair that resulted in the death of one of the overseers on Section 10 appears to have been nothing more than one of the usual Irish fighting frolics."

Property owners continued to complain about the depredations of aqueduct laborers. Presenting a bill of $3,012 for his losses in 1840, Joshua Purdy wrote: "I have made it for damages actually sustained and have not taken into consideration the inconvenience, trouble and anxiety of having between three & four hundred Irishmen upon my own farm and within a few rods of my dwelling house--for of that no calculation could be formed or any calculation made--of this I do not now nor shall not hereafter make any charge. But I can assure you it is no pleasant thing to have huts or shantees as they are called stuck up within a few rods of my dwelling and peopled with the lowest and most filthy of mankind, children nearly naked before your eyes, and that of your family."

Some idea of the inflation of land prices caused by claims and protracted negotiations may be gleaned from the following statistics: Originally estimated at $36,000, the 813 acres of land bought for the Croton Aqueduct actually cost the city $165,786. Land for the reservoir created by the Croton Dam, estimated at $28,500, set the city back $91,412.

Strikes Spread

The widespread unemployment resulting from the 1837 financial panic allowed wages to be kept low for the thousands of workers from the construction trades and the hordes of recently arrived Irish immigrants who found work on the aqueduct. Resentment over low wages and strict work rules led to violent strikes--"turn-outs" in official reports--took place during the building of the aqueduct. At the outset, laborers earned 75 cents a day. In the spring of 1838, when contractors offered them 81-1/4 cents a day, they demanded more. The laborers laid down their tools and marched "in a tumultuous manner" along the route of the aqueduct from Croton Dam to Sing Sing (Ossining). Along the way, they forced other aqueduct workers to join them until the protesters numbered several hundred. Local magistrates broke up their demonstration. After another strike in July of 1838, contractors raised wages to a dollar a day, and this rate was maintained during the summer of 1839. During the shorter days of winter, however, wages were cut back to 75 cents. In April of 1840, laborers again demanded a dollar a day, but contractors insisted on retaining the 75-cent rate.

By the spring of 1840 the aqueduct reached the northern edge of the city. Former mayor Philip Hone, the indefatigable diarist upon whom we are dependent for much of our knowledge of the life and times of the period, recorded:” There has been a flare-up amongst the Irish laborers on the Croton Aqueduct occasioned by the contractors reducing their wages from $1 to 75 cents/day. Large numbers turned out and marched from Westchester to Harlem, prevented others from working, and committed some acts of violence upon the workers."

This strike caused a worried Mayor Isaac Varian to try to intimidate the rebellious workers by calling out and leading three troops of aging mounted militia of the 27th Regiment of the National Guard. “The dogs barked, the boys shouted, the men laughed, the ladies smiled, and the men looked silly,” reported James Gordon Bennett’s Morning Herald. The part-time soldiers patrolled the line of the aqueduct as far as the Harlem River, but the Irish instinct to see life in a comic light prevailed. After meeting with good-natured heckling from the strikers, the cavalry troopers retreated. Because the depression caused by the financial panic of 1837 was still being felt, the laborers had to settle for 75 cents a day.

In spite of many handicaps, the Croton Aqueduct was completed in 1842 and brought an abundant daily supply of 90 million gallons of water to New York City. By the early 1880’s the Croton water, even after being supplemented by 20 million gallons of Bronx River water, had become inadequate for the city’s needs. A New Croton Aqueduct was authorized in 1883. Begun in 1885, it came partially on line in 1891 and was fully completed in 1893. The new system expanded the carrying capacity by 300 million gallons of water daily.

More Than Water
The Old Croton Aqueduct did more than carry water. Indirectly, it brought Roman Catholicism to the lower Hudson Valley. In cities, immigrants from Ireland tended to cluster around existing Catholic churches. Workers on the Croton Aqueduct, however, had no access to houses of worship. Missionary priests, notably Father James Cummiskey traveling from Sing Sing (Ossining), ministered to their needs in makeshift accommodations all along the aqueduct line.. Informal services in sheds and private homes provided the seedbed for the establishment of Westchester County's first Roman Catholic parishes in Yonkers, Dobbs Ferry, Beekmantown (later North Tarrytown, now Sleepy Hollow), and Sing Sing.

As it turned out, the thousands of Irish who labored to build the Old Croton Aqueduct were only the vanguard of the millions who would flee the Emerald Isle because of the Great Famine. Between 1845 and 1855, some 1,500,000 persons would leave Ireland for the United States. Paradoxically, the Irish influx was exactly what a growing America needed and what this country did not have: a laboring class with little choice but to accept the jobs that were offered. Fortunately, jobs such as digging canals and building aqueducts and railroads were many.

Pick-and-shovel work was new to America, and few Americans wanted to do it. As a result, successive waves of Irish were welcomed to the cities, where their labor met the need for better streets, sewers and new housing, all the while suffering terrible hardships doing the roughest, most dangerous work without complaint. The Irish hod carrier and bricklayer became the butt of many a vaudeville joke. With time, however, prejudices eventually faded, as the brawn and mechanical skills of the Irish made their adopted country an industrial giant and the envy of the world.

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